In 2018, God of War rebooted itself with a mature narrative that changed the game from a hack-and-slash to an action RPG. It told a father-son story that pushed Kratos beyond his quest to kill all the gods on Olympus, and showed us a caring side to the Ghost of Sparta that we had only glimpsed in the Greek saga. It did it all in a single camera shot, the action never leaving Kratos’ side. It was an interesting gimmick and an impressive technical feat at the time. But when it returns for God of War Ragnarok, it’s clear that the gimmick has reached its limits and is overstaying its welcome.
The idea of the one-shot is not new, movies have been doing it for over 70 years. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope was the first to use this technique, hiding cuts with transitions by panning the camera behind furniture and zooming in and then out on key objects. Rope takes on the style of a play, with the camera in the role of audience, its constant gaze on the murderous protagonist slowly unraveling. Other modern films have also used the technique, whether it’s Birdman’s increasingly erratic camerawork to show a life quickly unraveling, or the one-take technique (no tricks, just a single shot) in Boiling Point to show a crumbling restaurant under pressure. When used deliberately, such as in the apartment room in Rope, it excels, but in Ragnarok the cracks start to show.
The idea is that you get an uninterrupted view of what’s happening on the screen, which draws you in and makes you feel more immersed. Several continuous shots in Children of Men do this, as does the famous walking scene in Oldboy, and the convoluted tricycle ride in The Shining. But, less is more, the second you realize you’re in a continuous shot, the illusion is shattered and you start looking for hidden cuts, which defeats the point of immersion. They’re best when you don’t notice them until after the camera cuts away and you can finally breathe easy again. Ragnarok spoilers follow.
While I’ve been playing Ragnarok, the fact that the camera lags has always been in the back of my mind, making me hyper-aware that I’m playing a video game and preventing me from fully diving into the story. Nowhere is it more horrific than the scene where Atreus runs to Asgard. At this point, the perspective has switched between Kratos and his son a few times, so I know what to look for. The camera pans around the war god and rests behind the young giant, but as all his companions beg him not to go to Odin, the camera remains static, lifeless. There’s so much emotional weight to the scene, but the refusal to do so much as a close-up on any of the characters means it all falls flat, ruining what should be a poignant moment.
With the camera behind Atreus’ back, Freya, Tyr, Brok and Sindri gradually fill the frame around Kratos and Mimir as they plead with him not to go to Asgard. The feeling of him being ganged up on and surrounded is conveyed brilliantly, but that’s about it. With his back taking up a good portion of the frame and the rest of the cast quite far away, there’s no way to read the intricacies of their performances. This distance highlights that the teenager feels like no one understands him, but it could have done all that and more if the camera at least moved in to show the fury on Kratos’ face or the worry in Tyr’s bifrost eyes.
As Atreus runs to the gate to escape the house, Kratos bursts out and screams after him, “Boy!” This is the only time he does it in the entire game. Despite its popular meme status from the first game in the Norse saga, the developers chose to drop it to reflect Kratos’ newfound respect for his son after their journey together. It’s important that he calls it out here, as it shows that he’s not just angry, he’s lost respect for Atreus. But we don’t see that because the camera insists on staying behind Atreus, leaving Kratos a speck in the distance.
In a series so lauded for its achievements, sticking to the gimmicky one-shot fails. It’s done to keep the focus on the characters, always centering them, but this is entirely possible with traditional editing as well. Christopher Judge is intense, he has put his heart, soul and experience as a father into this role, and not seeing the complex emotions on his face as he yells out does him and the game a disservice. I know this is Kratos and Atreus’ story because I play as them, I shouldn’t have to stare at their backs all the time and squint at what’s in front of them.
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